Spring Begins

pussy willow 2016 blog


Spring Begins

March is the drabbest month of the year in the Midwest.  The snow has melted revealing vast expanses of brown grass and a winter’s accumulation of trash that’s been hidden beneath its white blanket.  March is completely unpredictable—warm and sunny in the 50’s or even 70’s one day, cold and raw the next.  Rain, wind, snow, and sometimes ice storms are part of the March package.  Some years Spring starts in March; other years, she stubbornly waits until mid-April.

But spring is in the air, literally.  On warm evenings one can smell spring, bringing back memories of every spring one has ever lived.  Green tips of plants poke through the wet soil; the male cardinal (which has been here all winter) has started his cheery whistle—his courtship song—once again.  The robins have begun to arrive; the snowbirds will leave by mid-April.  The cacophony of great flocks of ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes flying north to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada brings us to the window to marvel at whatever primal instinct causes them to do this every March, flying high in their perfect V-formation.

Harbingers of Spring

skunk cabbage 2016

This photo was taken at Bluff Spring Fen on March 17, 2009.

The very first herbaceous plant to bloom is the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  It creates its own heat, melting the snow that covers it—its unusual flowers may emerge as early as February.  The yellow-green flowers, arranged in a knoblike spadix inside a green and purple-brown mottled, hood-like spathe, are attractive to early pollinating insects and to those of us who are eager for the earliest signs of spring.  Skunk Cabbage grows in colonies in fens and springy places.

pussy willow 2015

Pussy willow

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), every child’s favorite symbol of Spring, produces gray furry buds at the beginning of March or some years as early as February.  Easily found on spring walks, it grows in shrubby marshes and wetlands throughout the Midwest, frequently in the company of other willows and Red-osier Dogwood.  With permission, we cut armfuls of branches to bring Spring indoors.  If you don’t put them in water, the buds will last forever.  (The Pussy Willow sold in flower shops is usually Salix caprea, a European import.)  Salix discolor grows into an attractive, multi-stem shrub, 10-15’ tall, that is suitable to grow on home grounds in moist to wet areas.  It doesn’t appear to be available at nurseries, but stems root quickly in water.

A source of ornament, sentiment, shade, and aspirin, the willows are a rich part of our history and landscape.                            Dick Young

Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas


Quaking Aspen

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is found in every county in the Chicago area and every state in the continental United States.

The tall, straight trunk, covered with a whitish bark, marked by black horizontal scars and prominent black warty patches, is topped by an upright oval crown.  The round, glossy green leaves, dull beneath, become a striking golden-yellow in autumn.  Its flattened petioles allow the leaves to flutter and rustle in the slightest breeze.  It colonizes through its root system cloning itself into large groves.

This colony I have photographed is next to a railroad track, in the town where I live, but alas-these and several Bur Oak trees were cut down last year.

Its round, furry gray buds, similar to Pussy Willow, are the first to appear in spring, sometimes as early as February, even before those of Pussy Willow.

The catkins soon turn into delightful, fuzzy, gray dangling caterpillars.

popple lake fishing

Every summer, when I was a child, we went to my grandpa’s cottage on Popple Lake,  near Chippewa Falls in Wisconsin, for our summer vacation.  Popple is a local term in the Upper Midwest for Quaking or Trembling Aspen .

witch hazel curtainAmerican Hazelnut  (Corylus americana)

From early-to-mid-March to mid-April,  golden pollen spills from the curtain of pendulous male catkins of American Hazelnut, lighting up savannas, woodlands, and fencerows.  Growing 8-10’ tall, American Hazelnut forms colonies by means of root sprouts.  My favorite shrub, It makes a splendid hedge in partial shade.   I’ve searched in vain in the Forest Preserves of northern Kane County where I live to see it in its native habitat, but have never located one.    Have any of you seen one in the wild?

I have never seen the catkins such a bright yellow; this photo was taken last Friday, March 11, when it was so warm.  By the next day, it was somewhat duller.

witch hazel catkins large

“One cloudy April day, when threatening rain caused  the west to be in a dramatic  mood, we were scurrying along to reach some shelter before the worst might happen.  A lone hazel bush, perhaps the last of a great colony, made us pause on our way.  Why it had been spared I do not know, but there it was in a festive spring outfit.  We were astounded by the attraction this simple  plant possessed.  The secret of it all was its yellow catkins against the threatening purple clouds in the west, bringing out their exquisite beauty…I had known the hazel since boyhood days, but I had lived almost an average lifetime before I saw its real significance and its charm.  From that time on, a hazel bush, backed by the purple branches of our native plum, has graced a corner of my garden, and every spring I wait for the spring song of its catkins.”

Jens Jensen


Speckled Alder March

While the European Smooth Alder (Alnus glutinosa) has become naturalized along the Fox River north of Elgin and along the DuPage and DesPlains rivers, the native Speckled Alder (Alnus rugosa) is rare.   The tree is decorated with luxuriant, pendulous catkins in early March and attractive seed-bearing cones in winter, which last through the spring.  The distinct horizontal lenticels on the bark are an easy identification mark.  It is found in moist thickets in the dune area and along rivers. The above is on the bank of the Fox River in Potawatomi Park in St.Charles, IL.

winter aconite best one

Last week’s Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymelis) is in full bloom this week.  As I said then, if you missed it, Winter Aconite is native to Europe, but it came along to this garden via some trillium i transplanted from my old garden.  A member of the Buttercup family, its golden cups are the earliest perennial to bloom in our area, sometimes as early as late February.  Plant it under deciduous trees–a spring ephemeral, it blooms in full sun in spring and then its flowers and leaves disappear until next spring.  The tubers increase making an ever enlarging circle.  Easy to transplant, they can be moved to other locations after bloom or given away to friends, best done before the leaves fade.


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